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The Sporting Club
By Thomas McGuane
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1968 Thomas McGuane
All rights reserved.
Blucher's Annals of the North (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1919) which perforce omits the human element and which minces the few words at its disposal, has this to say:
Centennial Club (formerly the Shiawasee Rod and Gun Club): Grandest of the original sporting clubs of the Northern Lower Peninsula, founded by the barons of lumbering who logged off the white pine stands of the Saginaw Country. Its charter was written in 1868 while the big timber was being converted to pioneer houses on the treeless prairies of the West. The operations of the Centennial Club are shrouded in well-guarded mystery. Nothing is known of its procedures but that membership is handed from fathers to eldest sons. The vastness of the Centennial land holdings is widely known: they extend from the Pere Marquette to the Manistee. A mounting body of evidence has pointed to the club's large influence in state and local politics. The grounds include many buildings of interest, principally the MAIN LODGE***** which is a distinguished early example of G. K. Truax's "country style" though much modified both by the capricious architectural tastes of early-time lumber barons and by the use of amateur Indian labor. Nearby are some smaller club buildings worth the visitor's attention. These include the GAZEBO**** and a well-constructed TOOL-SHED.* Tours are occasionally arranged during winter months.
Blucher is a little misleading (there has never been a tour); and like so many clubs, the Centennial Club has suppressed an accessible luxury in favor of roughing it. Anyone looking for splendor would find it plain. Even the tool-shed disappoints.
This morning, two men rode along the sandy miles between the front gate and the upland slope upon which the club had located its buildings. Jack Olson, the manager of the club, drove the jeep with certitude over the disrepair of the road. James Quinn sat beside him and studied the woods. Behind the two, just unloaded from the club's twin-engined Beechcraft, loomed Quinn's gear. Quinn was here to rest and that always seemed to require a lot of equipment; though if Vernor Stanton was here no amount of it would save him. A sharpshin hawk wheeled low into the blue strip of sky over the road, its long legs trailing a brown curve of mouse, flew ahead of them for a moment and swung into the woods again. Quinn was beginning to see how he could be chiseled out of his recuperation and he was afraid to ask about Stanton. He knew he would have to ask; but it was a minute before he could go through with it.
"All right," Quinn said, "tell me."
They drove on. Quinn stared at the double gearshifts of the transmission and transfer box.
"He has his wife with him, you know," Olson said.
"So you think that will help."
"Well, so much of the old trouble started—"
"Yes—" Quinn encouraged.
"With women, right?"
"That's your boy. Whew. That's what I was thinking."
"And if he could just—" Olson began anew, encouraged.
"Say it, Jack. If he could just—?"
"Get his ashes hauled about sixty times a day—"
"Easy now. You think that would quiet him? Well, I do too. That would quiet most anything, wouldn't it? After all?"
"I guess." Olson was lost in thought.
"I mean just what kind of a girl is this?"
"Oh, no. Just a girl. But I mean, something, right? Wouldn't you think? Nobody sees him. He's been very quiet." Quinn agreed. He gazed out upon the familiar savannahs and stands of pine slashing. Then they turned onto a narrower road so frequently marked with rain-pools that Olson engaged the four-wheel drive. Now cedars were around them and the road was very slightly flooded so that when they hit clay and the rear end swam a little, Olson accelerated to bring it back in line. The ferns made their false floor in the woods and every shaft of sun was whirling with insects. They climbed again slowly.
"One other thing though. He built this dueling gallery in his basement." Quinn looked at Olson. They were coming now along the last climb to the plateau.
"For what?" he asked. Olson turned his thin, intelligent face against the light and looked away from Quinn as though this were the first time he was giving it real consideration. The jeep bucked under them lightly.
"Eventualities," Olson said as if picking up the word in his hand. Quinn recognized Stanton in this. God help us, he thought. They stopped in front of the main lodge.
"I'll go see for myself." Behind the lodge was the forest. In front of it was a wide, manicured green compound encircled by a cliff of heavy pine. The main lodge was an immense three-story building with a bleached and shallow blue-gray mansard roof. In the middle of the compound was an octagonal screened gazebo called the Bug House, and beside it a tall metal flagpole with its slack ropes hitting musically. Quinn made arrangements for his place to be aired and swept and for his mail to be brought down. Then he headed down the dry, beaten trail that led out of the compound to Stanton's place. In a minute, he stopped for a nervous easing of his bladder, then went on where trees crowded, tall sunless pines blown out of the ground like jets of dark gas. Stanton's house was virtually without a yard. Quinn walked out of the woods three feet and was against the first step of the porch. He had gotten just this far when Stanton stepped, or rather thrust, out onto the top step. His muscular frame was covered only by the pleated linen shorts he wore and sweat ran down his chest. In his right hand hung a dueling pistol. "The true Quinn," he said in his heroic manner; "this is an ugly surprise." Quinn ascended the steps.
"I've come to meet your new wife since you never troubled me with a wedding invitation."
"Well, come on in and introduce yourself to her." He turned back into the darkness. "Dat's what I do all de day long.—Janey!" he called. "Janey!" He led Quinn down the hall. "Off on one of her peerless nature jaunts." Quinn plunged his hands in his pockets and followed the barefoot and sweating Stanton. "Head of moose," Stanton said with a rotary movement of his left hand as he passed the trophy. They crossed the big, timbered living room. "Doorway to improved cellar."
Quinn followed Stanton down headlong steps to a lighted cellar. Odors of fresh paint, fiber insulation and dampness combined strangely. The first room was a bar and library with books, many of them good editions, swollen with moisture and neglected. Stanton made drinks and led Quinn into the next room, the dueling gallery. This was a serious place, painted like a ship's boiler room and lit like a surgical theater with a long row of egg-crate nonglare lights. They filled the room with a delicate electrical hum. At either end of the room were human silhouettes. Each had a red circle around the heart that enclosed the numeral ten. The other regions of the body were similarly defined with black perimeters that enclosed smaller numbers. Quinn considered it a stroke of surprising romanticism to award the heart ten points. A modern target would indicate a grand slam for the straight shot, from behind, to the skull, or perhaps a combination parlay for a disabler to the spine and finishing shot through the roof of the mouth. These targets had faces which were serene and Mediterranean and their eyes followed you around the room waiting to be shot.
"Admit I've improved the cellar," said Stanton, and Quinn felt he was stalling. Next to the entrance was a cabinet and he pulled open its door. "Come look here." Inside, on small felt-covered hooks, a dozen pairs of dueling pistols hung upside down by their trigger guards. Stanton took down a pair and handed one to Quinn. "French and without price. Made by Jean Baptiste Laroche, Paris, middle eighteenth century. They came with jasper flints which were purely decorative and had to be replaced. There is a fitted case for the convenience of the seconds who carry the instruments to the scene of the crime as if it were no more than a Dopp kit; a powder flask of the thinnest possible gold, instruments for cleaning and a mold that casts six perfect bullets at a throw."
The gun Quinn held was slender and heavy. The stock was oiled, dark walnut, the barrel long and octagonal. A pair of small, silver-chased dragons held the lock in place; and their flaming tongues curled around the hammer.
"Come on," Stanton said, "provoke me. We'll have a duel."
"All right. I disapprove of the stupid waste of money."
"That will do nicely." He took out a work glove from his sweaty hind pocket and flipped Quinn in the face with it. "I tell you, Pablo, I am provoked. Let's load the guns. Vamonos!" He took Quinn's weapon and charged it, seating the patched bullet with a small ramrod that slipped down the barrel making a half turn with the rifling. He loaded the second pistol in the same way, then primed the two guns with finer powder and held them out to Quinn next to each other, the knurled, acorn butts pointed in opposite directions. Quinn took one with amusement and cocked it with the solid complicated click of more than one thing falling into place, took a few steps and set his heels on the single line that divided the gallery in two. "One of us will have to count the paces."
"I will," Quinn said. "Otherwise we'll get foul play."
Stanton lined up behind him, heel to heel, and Quinn could feel Stanton's back radiate moistly through his shirt. They were alike in height though Stanton was much more heavily built. He was left-handed and the two pistols clicked together once.
"I'm ready," said Stanton.
Quinn counted. At ten he turned on his heel and raised the dueling pistol. He looked down the clean plane of its barrel, saw Stanton's head quaver upon the blade of its front sight and bleed away in the slight glare of light. He began to feel the weight of the gun in his upper arm. He saw Stanton standing sideways, one hand on his hip, tilting slightly back from the waist, the head tilted back too and the narrowed eyes; Quinn thought that this was what a real duelist must look like. Then there was the flash and report of Stanton's pistol. Quinn went down feeling the pain open like a talon in his chest. He was on his back. He held himself upright on his elbows as Stanton ran whooping toward him, the row of electric bulbs streaming out of his head behind him. When he got to Quinn, Quinn raised his own gun with a seizure of hatred and fired. Stanton disappeared in the flash, bellowing, "Good God!" He snatched away Quinn's pistol. "Get off your backside, you candy ass! Wax bullets! Order of the day for dueling practice! Strictly order of the day!" Stanton was disgusted and Quinn looked at him, feeling the slow draining of hatred from his brain. He got to his feet gritting his teeth from side to side and peeled up his shirt. Over his heart was a circular welt, red at the edges and very white at the center, like a great wasp sting. He still felt frightened and, now that it was over, unnaturally light. This was a time when he would have liked to have shown himself quite solidly but he knew his eyes still moved with excessive speed and his hands trembled: Stanton never missed such things.
"Everyone told me you were slipping, Quinn, and I'm beginning to believe it."
"I'm not slipping," Quinn breathed. Stanton began to calm down. Quinn tucked in his shirt. "You scared me shitless."
"I see that I did. You look chastened. The fire is out in your great bunny's eyes. Well, you'll have a chance to recoup your emotional losses. This is a great spiritual exercise."
"Where did you ever get the idea?" Quinn asked blandly.
Stanton took the question seriously: "Where? Puerto Rico. A professional twenty-one dealer had just paraded around me with a revolver and I lost such a terrific amount of face in front of a girl I was in love with that I considered defenestration. In my emotional exhaustion I decided that the only thing which could save me would be to always be prepared for the duel."
"How did I figure into this?"
"I thought if I blasted you once good I would get a couple more challenges out of you. Practice is not at all the same on a paper target."
Quinn wanted to go. They went up and into the living room again. "Head of moose," said Stanton; then, indicating the stairway asked, "See my sign?" Quinn looked; a metal placard read POST NO COITUS. He recognized this as another of Stanton's tests and waited patiently for the question. It came right away: "What do you think of it?" Quinn had a violent feeling of not requiring Stanton's tests, but he was alert enough to think: Probably it begins here. He answered that he thought it was in bad taste and was not at all moved when Stanton told him he would have laughed at it before.
* * *
He went through the woods to his own place, fingering the raised circle through his shirt, gently because it was quick to hurt. Son of a bitch, he thought; after all this time, this was more of the same; it had begun long ago with a punch in the face from Stanton that removed a tooth and lacerated his tongue badly enough that the tooth, presumed lost, floated out a day later from the cut—all because Quinn had said, purely on speculation, that there was no God. Nevertheless, Quinn had been caught napping again; and that is why, afterward, Stanton thought he looked chastened. He was.
He came into view of his house and it revealed anew its unwarranted glory. The house had been built by his great-grandfather and his grand-uncles and though it was well made, it had required considerable repair and attention since before the Second World War. Doing things in a hurry was by now a tradition in Quinn's family and there was some suspicion that green wood had been used in its construction. It was full of otherwise unexplainable gaps in its joining and invited the weather if it wasn't constantly attended. Still, Quinn was unable to imagine any kind of gradual decline of the house. Because he was so sure that it stayed together by some subtle, frangible system, he imagined that it would go all at once—collapse, the roof coming in like an enormity, blasting sunlight and dust from every opening and crevice.
Inside, the house was clear, sunny, its seven rooms swept and polished. A current International Harvester calendar hung on the wall of the living room; underneath were fifteen more, the latest showing a male model in tool-jeans mounting a combine. The crystal cabinet still held his arrowhead collection. The rooms were all under-furnished as is usual with summer places. The spare and unupholstered furniture suggested the house's long use as an operational center. Whatever sentiment it held could as easily have collected around the polished bars of a jungle gym or the packed sand of a bear garden. Anyway, it pleased him to see it and he went into his old bedroom and lay down.
The minute his face touched the nubbed cotton chenille spread and he tried to doze off, his mind began to operate at full speed, thrusting him, against his will, back into his office on a recent day, a Monday, when his secretary, Mary Beth Duncan, was to have been on vacation and he had looked forward to a day in the empty office, undoing her more odious mistakes, refusing to answer the phone, smoking and talking graciously into the dictaphone, drafting letters of supply and demand, request and compliance—shapely paragraphs of clean business prose. But Mary Beth had given up a day of her vacation to take care of back work. Quinn was more than bitter at seeing her and tried to go quietly into his own office. "You don't see me, Mr. Quinn!" she sang as he entered, "I'm on vacation!"
"Right you are, Mary Beth. And get this: if you bring me the recent paperwork on American Motors, I won't pay any attention to you at all."
Mary Beth closed her eyes and shook her head. When he was finished, she cried, "You don't see me! I'm on vacation! You can't even see me!"
"Only this small—"
Excerpted from The Sporting Club by Thomas McGuane. Copyright © 1968 Thomas McGuane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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